Perched beside me on a plastic stool in Mexico City's San Juan market, Francisco, a pensioner from the nearby town of Amatepec, is chowing down a plate of skunk meat.
"I've tried everything: armadillo, iguana, turtle, snake, you name it," he tells me between mouthfuls, "but skunk is my favourite. I used to hunt them out in the mountains but it's been years since I last ate it."
So what does it taste like? "It tastes like skunk. You can't compare it with anything else. Every meat has its own distinct flavor," Francisco replies.
As appealing as skunk sounds, I've come here in search of two even more unusual meats: lion and crocodile.
Built in 1955 at 21 Ernesto Pugibet Street in the heart of Mexico City's historic enter, the indoor San Juan market is famed for its selection of exotic meats, indigenous delicacies, and rare foreign imports.
Eduardo Santana has been working at his family butcher's stall, Carniceria Santana, for 20 years. They sell meats rarely found in Mexican cuisine, such as rabbit, quail, venison, ostrich, buffalo, and wild boar, as well as staples of the pre-Hispanic diet like grasshoppers, maguey worms, and escamoles (ant larvae also known as "Mexican caviar"). Today, Santana says, these insects are most commonly eaten like chips, served in tacos, or used as an adornment for other dishes.
Santana does not stock lion, but he does sell cuts of frozen crocodile meat. These meats only began to appear in San Juan about five years ago, he says: "As our gastronomy has become more popular in culinary schools and on TV shows, people have begun to introduce more exotic meats for consumption. It's become kind of fashionable for restaurants to create new dishes with them, although they're still not very common in our day-to-day life."
Most exotic meats used to be imported, with the crocodile coming from the United States and the venison being shipped from New Zealand, but now many of the animals are reared at specialist farms in Mexico, Santana explains. The buffalo is still imported from the United States, he says, but the crocodile now comes from an licensed provider in the eastern state of Veracruz.
Crocodile meat, which Santana sells at 550 pesos (about US $32) per kilo, can be fried, grilled on a skewer, or served raw in ceviche. Some people try it out of sheer curiosity, he says, but the most common buyers are cookery schools and restaurants, such as Chon, a popular local joint that serves an array of intriguing pre-Hispanic dishes like crocodile in mole verde.
Santana only sells frozen crocodile meat in bulk, but I find another vendor, Arminda Gutierrez, who offers to cook me up a fillet with some venison and wild boar for just 200 pesos ($12).
"Crocodile should not be cooked for long or else the meat will turn very tough," she says as she thinly slices the milky white meat. She then seasons the cut with fine herbs, Himalayan salt, and a dash of garlic mayo before frying it in a pan laced with olive oil.
"It's best enjoyed as a simple fillet so you don't lose the flavor," she recommends, although she serves up the three meats with a slice of fried provolone garnished with grated Parmesan, sliced tomato, and green olives, plus freshly made tortillas.
The crocodile is the pick of the bunch. I'd expected a chickeny or even fishy flavor, but in reality it's much closer to pork. My curiosity satisfied, I move on in search of lion.
Almost immediately I meet Maricela Bernal, whose family stall, Los Coyotes, dates back 40 years. She sells lion and tiger burgers for 100 pesos ($6) apiece, or a kilo of lion meat for 800 pesos ($47). The produce comes from a licensed farm in the state of Puebla, which lies directly southeast of Mexico City. Bernal says the providers also profit from selling the skins to taxidermists and flogging the bone—which at 1,500 pesos ($88) per kilo is almost twice as expensive as the meat—to Chinese clients who use it for medicinal purposes.
Los Coyotes only serves cooked meat at weekends so I take a lion burger back to Gutierrez, who readily prepares it for me. The burger is pale in colour and slightly peppery in taste, but Gutierrez suspects the meat may have been blended with that of another animal. For comparison purposes, she rustles up a small plate of diced lion steak sourced from another butcher. The steak is a darker red colour and has a much more distinctive, gamey flavour, like nothing else I have ever tried before. The meat is lean and very tough and Gutierrez suggests it would benefit from being marinated and sliced as thinly as possible.
It's not bad but, curious punters aside, I wonder who really eats this stuff. "It's not that popular but a lot of Chinese people come in asking for lion. They believe that if you eat its meat you'll obtain its strength," Gutierrez says.
Another vendor, Fernando Velázquez from the Gran Cazador stall, tells me lion meat can also be grilled, stewed, or served as carnitas. Given the limited demand, he tells me the sourcing process happens on a fairly irregular basis: "We buy it from a breeding centre from Zumpango, a small town just north of Mexico City. They simply arrive at the market with meat and we buy what we need from them."
And just how much lion can one stall sell? "Sometimes we'll buy some lion, sometimes tiger, but there's no guarantee that it'll sell," Velázquez says. "One month we might not sell any, but another month we'll sell four or five kilos."
For Mexicans, it seems, lion remains an acquired taste.
This first appeared on MUNCHIES in September 2015.